Soviet ice hockey is at the centre of a compelling documentary
When we think of Soviet-era national sport it's rarely in a positive light, whether it's suspicious East German swimmers, or Ivan Drago killing Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. Even the Soviets' feared ice hockey team is best remembered for losing the so-called ‘Miracle on Ice’ at Lake Placid in 1980, instead of their decades of dominance; but Gabe Polsky’s Red Army goes some way to redressing this.
Putting a charmingly boyish face on the team described by an American TV commentator as a ‘microcosm of their emotionless society’ in the opening salvos, is famed defenceman Viacheslav 'Slava' Fetisov. An intertitle reminds us of his honours: seven World Championships, two Olympic golds and one silver, two-time Stanley Cup winner – the list goes on and on.
Fetisov is our guide behind the Iron Curtain to one of the greatest sporting teams of the 20th century. While socio-philosophical questions of why and how they succeeded remain high on the agenda, it’s Fetisov's personal journey – from Soviet icon, to his time living the American dream, and his return to a new Russia – that drives Polsky’s narrative and makes for truly compelling viewing.
Even still, Red Army connects the dots between Communism and its sports programme, drawing out the essence of what made its hockey team so great, complete with jauntily scored archive footage. Whether it was team-over-individual ethics, the influence of ballet and chess on style and strategy, or the family-like relationship between the famed ‘Russian Five’ of Fetisov, Kasatonov, Makarov, Larionov and Krutov – Polsky covers his bases well.
It’s a wonderful piece of historical storytelling, bittersweet and at times quite moving. In an era of renewed tension between the east and west superpowers, here’s a film reminding us to look beyond nationalistic stereotypes and strive for deeper understanding. Sometimes behind the poker face is just a kid who loves to play ice hockey.
Selected release from Fri 9 Oct.